My year is up. No more dodging the issue. It’s time for me to answer my own question: What is goodness? To do that, however, I have to first talk about God, moral codes and baseball.
Millions of people seek goodness in God. I’ve been blessed to know many folks who are devout and practice goodness so delightfully and well that I believe it’s absurd to assert, as some people do, that religion cannot be a path to goodness. I’ve known Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and those of other religions who are the embodiment of compassion and love. Far from being a detriment, their spiritual practices keep them on the goodness path.
But what about the others? What about those who use religion as a bludgeon? What about clergy who abuse children? What about ministers who use their influence to drain the faithful of money? And what about the fact that no matter how much you believe in God you still have the responsibility to choose: Which God? Which scripture? Which interpretation? God may be part of the answer, particularly for some, but God cannot be the whole answer.
Millions of people also seek goodness through secular moral codes. These lists of dos and don’ts are supposed to guide us when we’re confronted with ethical problems. As a young journalist, I took great comfort in the code I had been taught. I was so squeaky new to the job that I had no past experiences to drawn on. Journalism ethics gave me definite answers, and those answers worked, except when they didn’t.
At their essence, moral codes are lists of rules. Life, however, is messy, and its complexity makes it impossible to write a rule to match every situation. Even more distressing is the fact that rules don’t take human emotion into account. We all have emotional issues. We drag this mental baggage from situation to situation, and when our issues are triggered, logic and the guidance of law and code are impotent.
A Wall Street banker who was raised to believe a man’s worth equals his income may bend financial laws to the breaking point. Add to that situation a dash of child abuse and a full cup of emotional abuse, and this banker could be driven to do anything – smash the law, destroy his own business, bring down the economy, as long as he gets richer.
My father is a prime example of the problem of moral codes. He knew right from wrong. He desperately wanted to do right. He just couldn’t figure how to do it because his psychological problems got in the way.
God isn’t the answer. Moral codes aren’t the answer. What about baseball?
When I was a kid, everyone played ball in one form or another. There was Little League for the ambitious, and schoolyard ball for the rest of us. “Baseball” also came in many forms: hardball for boys and softball for girls. We even devised our own game called curb ball. I lived in a suburb with pristine cement curbs. We played curb ball by throwing a rubber ball as hard as we could so that it would bounce off the curb. We ran the bases in the middle of the street and adopted the rules of baseball for our game.
Some kids were great ball players. Most of us were middling. I had a good arm. I could throw and catch, but I couldn’t hit worth a damn. Of course, I never practiced hitting. As a girl in the 1950s, I also never received a single word of advice about batting, a fact that still irritates me, but I digress.
Everyone played. Some kids had a natural talent for playing ball. Some practiced all the time and got great at it. Some kids received expert coaching and improved. Others of us didn’t. Baseball was and is a skill. Talent helps, but a player has to work hard to excel.
After 365 days on this journey, I’ve come to believe that goodness may also be a skill. Like the ability to play baseball, almost all of us have the ability to be good. For the tiny fraction of the population that is psychopathic that may be impossible, but the rest of us don’t have an excuse, although we do come to goodness from different places.
Like Hall of Famers in the major leagues, some people seem to be born with a talent for goodness. Most of us aren’t. Some people think about goodness and practice their goodness skills constantly, and they get, well, good at it. Others don’t. Some of us get coaching and improve in our ability to do right over time, and some don’t. And like baseball players, we all have to learn how to deal with our emotions to succeed. (You think emotion isn’t part of baseball? Have you ever seen a homerun hitter choke in the 9th inning when the game is on the line?)
I think Ruth Grant is right when she says we all want to be good, but I believe that few of us (all of us?) know how to consistently commit goodness over time. Some of us frail humans are better at it than others, but we all struggle. If we are drawn to the secular approach, how do we decide which moral code is right and which is destructive? Which code and which rule do we apply to each situation? If we are drawn to the religious path, how do we choose between thousands of competing denominations, religions, clergy and interpretations? How do we know when our once-helpful choice has wandered off the path of goodness? When we’ve found the perfect path, then what do we do when our emotional issues rear their ugly heads? At some point (multiple points?) in our lives each of us has to exercise skill in the pursuit of goodness.
Viewing goodness as a skill leads to a multitude of implications. If goodness is a skill, then it can be taught, coached and nurtured, and anyone (sans psychopaths) can become good, do good and be good. And unlike playing ball, which requires a certain soundness of body, goodness can be practiced until the day we die. If goodness is a skill, then secular and religious approaches are not mutually exclusive, and do not have to be mutually antagonistic. Either approach can work as long as it is skillfully applied to life. Either approach can fail if you don’t study, practice or receive the guidance you need to succeed.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve let my own psychological needs delude me. (Daddy issues anyone?) But maybe not. If goodness is a skill that can be nurtured and developed, then all manner of things are possible. Humanity is not inherently evil. The problems we see around us are not signs of the apocalypse – either religious or secular. Perhaps all of this is telling us that it’s time to grow up and learn something new.
I wrote an initial version of this post on May 21 and revised it on May 31. This is entitled a “first theory” because I have no idea where life and learning will take me next. Above all, I pray that I haven’t bricked either myself or The Goodness Project into a corner by posting this theory. Please let me know what you think of my ideas, and don’t hesitate to post your own answer to the question: What is goodness? I look forward to hearing from you.
*This post first appeared in In Search of Goodness on June 1, 2011.